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Growth Counseling for Marriage Enrichment by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Howard J. Clinebell, Jr. Is Professor of Pastoral Counseling at the School of Theology at Claremont, California (1977). He is a member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, and the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. He is a licensed marriage, child and family counselor in the State of California. His personal website is, and his email address is Growth Counselling for Marriage Enrichment was published in 1975 by Fortress Press, Philadelphia. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Richard and Sue Kendall.

Chapter 5. Retreats and Groups

The cosmic covenant means coming into living harmony with the self, the When I am coming alive I know that I am coming alive. universe, and God 1.

-- Mary Daly

Man can become whole not in virtue of a relation to himself but only in virtue of a relation to another self. This other self may be just as limited and conditioned as he is; in being together the unlimited and the unconditioned is experienced. 2.

-- Martin Buber


The heart of a church’s marriage growth program is its enrichment retreats, workshops, and groups. Marriage enrichment events are the best means of attracting the maximum number of couples who want to "make good marriages better." They do this by learning to nurture their love and become part of a caring community of couples supporting each other’s growth. Enrichment events offer the best way to discover persons who are natural growth facilitators. With additional training and coaching, these lay persons can lead effective enrichment groups. Marriage enrichment events also encourage couples with deadlocked or deeply hurting marriages to gain enough hope to seek marriage counseling, often sooner than they otherwise would. Such events after counseling help couples continue the growth they began in counseling.

In marriage enrichment workshops -- I’ll use "workshop" interchangeably with "retreat" -- and groups, it’s well to blend four types of activities: (1) Whole group communication exercises and brief input sessions to share practical ideas, for example, about Transactional Analysis or sex. (2) Couple activities, especially relationship-building experiences such as the Intentional Marriage Method. Many couples find the times they spend together doing their marriage "growth work" the most valuable part of a workshop or group. One man stated, after a one-day workshop, "The most useful aspect was the opportunity to be together with my partner and discuss feelings, wants, and needs, and possible solutions. Excellent opportunity to revitalize our paths of communication and appreciation for each other!" (3) Small, usually leaderless sharing groups of three or four couples into which the membership of an entire workshop is divided. These small groups can often be meaningful and effective in encouraging each other’s growth. (4) Relaxation and fun periods, both planned and "free time," are essential during intensive retreats to keep the struggles of growth work from becoming a drag, and to encourage growth in that playfulness which keeps sparkle in a marriage. We often shortchange this aspect in retreats because of our "workaholic" tendencies.


Some Basic Ingredients

Here are some ingredients -- themes which I often include in enrichment events, depending on the length of the period and the interests of the group. Those preceded by an asterisk are included in nearly every group:

*Getting Connected as a Group and as Couples

I open a group workshop by discussing the possibilities of marriage enrichment events. Couples then are asked to talk as couples for a few minutes about their hopes and expectations for the experience. Then I ask the group to say what they hope to get from the experience (listing these needs on newsprint). Through group discussion the major goals, topics, and agenda items are then chosen, in light of the group’s needs and what the leaders and the group offer to meet these needs. This process ("developing a group contract") is essential for any growth event, since all real learning-growing is motivated by the participants’ needs and interests. The needs of most couples groups cluster around the topics listed below.

*Strengthening Our Communication Skills

This is needful and helpful both in the total group and later in the small groups. Self-awareness and responsive listening exercises (see above, Chapter 4) need continuing emphasis throughout a group. Schedule several communication-building experiences near the beginning to build group rapport, reduce initial anxieties, and give couples the immediate satisfaction of learning useful skills.

*Affirming Our Strengths and Building Trust

Schedule this for couples and small groups (see above, Chapter 4) before dealing with anxiety-laden issues such as conflict resolution, changing roles, crisis coping, or sex.

*Using the Intentional Marriage Method

This is the "heart" of our workshops (see above, Chapter 2). The process involves couples working separately and then coming together in sharing groups for debriefing.

*Approaching Conflict Through Role Playing

The use of role playing to act out a marriage conflict chosen by the whole group can help couples learn to use Transactional Analysis as a practical tool (see above, Chapter 4)

*Discovering Creativity in Changing Roles

Work first with the whole group, then with small groups, helping couples handle the conflict and discover the creativity made possible by the emerging, more fulfilling women-men identities. Begin with inner liberation (see above, Chapter 4), then discuss paths to human liberation and a liberating marriage.

Enhancing Sexual Enjoyment

The aim here is to brighten dull romance by encouraging sex-affirmative attitudes and non-demand pleasuring, pleasure enjoyed for its own sake without any other goal or expectation of achievement. Schedule free time for couples, after discussions of pleasuring, to have private "lab sessions," to practice massage, etc., in their own rooms.

*Evaluating Our Values

Beginning with couples, then sharing groups, help couples to become aware of the implicit values which guide their choices, to look at the consequences of these choices, and then to determine whatever changes in priorities and values are needed for improving the quality of their lives. 3.

*Deepening Spiritual Intimacy

Proceeding from the whole group to small groups to couples, focus on values and on ways to encourage each other’s continuing spiritual development, resolve religious conflicts, increase "peak experiences" in marriage, celebrate our struggles and growth together, and deepen experiences of nurturing trust in the Spirit of life and love

Coping With Crises in Marriage

With the whole group and the small groups, focus on learning skills which couples can use to help themselves and others experience crises as incentives for growth (see below.

Enriching Parent-Child and Parent-Youth Relations

Help the whole group and the small groups to focus on growth approaches to parenting, and how parent roles can enrich or impoverish marriages. 4. Discuss the enrichment of marriages without children.

Examining Growth Possibilities in Marriage Stages

Invite the whole group and then also the small groups to examine the problems and potentials of the stage or stages of the participants -- for example, pre-marriage, newly-married (pre-children), the young-children years, middle-years stage I (parents of teens); middle-years stage II (empty nest); the retirement years. 5.

*Raising the Enjoyment Quotient

Relaxation and fun periods may just happen. But they should also be scheduled: relaxation sessions, moving to music, volleyball, group shoulder rub in a circle (an excellent waker-upper when things begin to drag), trust jog, free time to "do your own thing," etc.

*Developing Intimacy Through Outreach

Couples can be helped to discover -- often to their surprise

-- their potential as marriage enrichers. They can increase the outreach dimension of marriage by developing a "couple investment plan" -- a strategy for responding to particular marriage and family needs in the congregation and community. Practicing generativity is the way to avoid group and family "in-grown-itis."

*Contracting for Continuing Growth

Before the end of a group or workshop, give couples an opportunity to develop their "growth covenant" -- concrete next steps they will take toward their growth goals -- and let them share this with the group. The entire group should also formulate plans to provide continuing mutual growth support to each other. Follow-up meetings can make a decisive difference in encouraging continued growth, when the going gets rough for individual couples.

*Evaluating the Experience

At the close of any group or workshop, invite persons to complete briefly and in writing these statements: (1) The most helpful parts of this group were. . . . (2) The least helpful or unhelpful were.. . . (3) My overall evaluation is. ... (4) On the basis of this experience, I now plan to. . . - (5) My suggestions for future groups are. . . . Halfway through a workshop, a midstream evaluation is also useful, as is a five-minute evaluation period at the end of each meeting of an ongoing group.

*Closing the Group or Retreat

It's important for persons to learn the skills of closing a chapter in their experience by facing their feelings about it -- including grief feelings -- celebrating what has been, and affirming each other for the gift of sharing. A worship moment at the end of a group session (for example, sentence prayers in a circle of joined hands) or a fuller closing to end an intensive workshop can heighten awareness of the transcendent dimension in all genuine relating and growth. At the end of an intensive group it is well to point out that something of a letdown is natural after any mountain-peak experience.

Sample Schedules

Here are sample schedules for three enrichment models which we have found to be effective in connection with the basic ingredients listed above:

Model I. A One-Day Retreat

A Saturday retreat with two to four weekly follow-up sessions can be effective with twelve, twenty-four, or even forty-eight couples if the co-leaders provide meaningful structures for the whole group and for the small groups and couple sharing.

8:30 A.M. -- Couples gather, have coffee, chat, make name tags, and on their tags draw a symbol to communicate their hopes for the event.
8:45 A.M. -- Getting connected and establishing group contract (in a circle).
10:00 A.M. -- Coffee break.
10:20 A.M. -- The Intentional Marriage Method.
11:50 A.M. -- Evaluating the morning 12:00
NOON -- Lunch, with the small groups eating together, each perhaps at its own table. Free time. The choice of afternoon topics is influenced by the particular interests of the group.
. Singing a folk hymn while joining hands in a circle.

12:45 P.M. -- Trust jog or something else with lively movement.
1:10 P.M. -- A lively, experiential topic, such as resolving conflict (using role playing) or changing roles.
2:10 P.M. -- Coffee break.
2:30 P.M. -- A film such as "Sexuality and Communication" 6. followed by co-leaders dialogue on enhancing sexual pleasure.
3:50 P.M. -- Sing a song or do a mutual shoulder rub.
4:00 P. M. -- Evaluating our working values experientially (in small groups); leads into a discussion of couple investment plans and outreach.
4:50 P.M. -- Planning follow-up, by couples and then as a group.
5:15 P.M. -- Closing worship, celebrating our sharing and affirming our plans for the future.
5:25 P.M. -- Evaluating the day; group discussion and written evaluations.

Intensive workshops leave people tired but exhilarated. I am impressed with the significant progress many couples make in even eight hours of growth work.

One participant wrote in her evaluation: "Beneficial! Just hope we can continue to have our skills grow. Because I was the one who suggested coming, and my husband seemed to get so much out of it, it was doubly worthwhile." Another wrote: "A most rewarding day, to be with my wife, and to share fellowship with others we didn’t know before but to be together as a family in the sharing."

It’s well to recommend that couples plan to have dinner out after a retreat to close the day with fun. Follow-up sessions, beginning a week later, build on the growth work begun at the retreat.

Model 2. A Weekend Retreat

A three-day retreat with one to three follow-up sessions can be effective for twelve, twenty-four, or even forty-eight couples.


6:00 P.M. -- Couples gather for supper, get acquainted, sing.
7:00 P.M. -- Getting connected; establishing group contract.
7:45 P..M. -- Awareness-communication exercises.
8:15 P.M. -- Sharing groups. Form a sharing group with three other couples you’d like to get better acquainted with this weekend.!
Discuss what you learned by this process of self selection.
Tell each person in your group something you like about him or her.!
Discuss this experience.!
9:00 P.M. -- Close your eyes; imagine you’re standing in front of each person in your group, one at a time, saying to, each one in turn, "I need you."/

Share your inner experience with your group.!
9:30 P.M. -- Evaluate the first session. Close with a brief worship event including joining hands in a circle and affirming the persons on both sides of you as children of God, using the nonverbal language of your hands. Sing "Shalom," remembering that the word means wholeness or fulfillment as well as peace.
Free time; informal fellowship.


8:00 A.M. -- Song and breakfast.
8:40 A.M. -- Communication exercise: responsive listening with two couples working together.
9:30 A.M. -- Coffee break.
9:45 A.M. -- The IMM.
10:45 A.M. -- Sharing groups; check out IMM plans.
11:30 A.M. -- Risking and trust exercises.
12:15 P.M. -- Evaluating the morning. Holding hands in a circle, sing the table blessing.
12:30 P.M. -- Lunch.
1:00-3:00 P .M. -- Free time for couple communication while sitting on a rock in the sun, hiking, etc.

3:00-6:00 P.M. -- Topics chosen by the group, such as conflict resolution, changing roles, coping with crises, parent-child relations. Approach these experientially, using guided fantasies, role playing, group discussion, etc.

6:00 P.M. -- Supper.

7:00 P.M. -- Enhancing sex.

8:30 P.M. -- Letting our Child sides play: informal party; refreshments.


8:00 A.M. -- Breakfast.
8:30 A.M. -- Sing a folk hymn.
Theme for the morning: "Experiencing the Good News in Our Marriages."
Evaluating our values, as couples and then in sharing groups.
Experiencing the caring community, in small groups. Each person shares something that causes him/her joy or pain .
Experiencing truth from our heritage. Couples write paraphrases of 1 Corinthians 13 as this passage relates to their experience with the IMM on Saturday.. They discuss next steps in their growth. Then they share this experience with their small group
11:10 A.M. -- Celebrating our relationships; experiential worship planned by group members.
Theme: "The greatest of these. . . ." Increasing our awareness of the Source of the love we know in our marriages. Couples share what has been spiritually meaningful during retreat. Closing: communion or love feast using the symbols of God’s nurturing love. Spouses give each other the elements.
11:45 A.M. -- Planning group follow-up sessions and outreach expressions.
12:15 P.M. -- Oral and written evaluations of the retreat.

Concentrated enrichment weekends like this have significant impacts on many participants. Couples clubs and church school classes that hold such "growth boosters" annually report that the quality of their ongoing relationships and study is markedly enhanced.

Model 3. A Multiple Session Enrichment Group

A series of four to ten sessions can include a mini-retreat near the beginning. The four-hour mini-retreat intensifies relationships and builds trust which help to make the two-hour weekly sessions more productive. Since I have already discussed methods of facilitating growth groups and marriage enrichment groups earlier in this book and elsewhere. 7. I won’t repeat these here. Many of these can be useful in the weekly groups’ sessions. Another effective approach, which is easier for leaders with limited experience, is to build sessions around book chapters which the couples agree to read together between meetings. For example, the chapters of our book The Intimate Marriage (hereafter referred to as TIM) can be used, with supplemental resources, in an eight-session enrichment group (the communication exercises at the end of each chapter can facilitate experiential learning and sharing).

Session 1. The Importance and Nature of Intimacy (Read chaps. 1 and 2 in TIM before the session; begin by discussing how the ideas relate to your marriages.)

Session 2: Mutual Need Satisfaction and Communication (Read chaps. 4 and 5 in TIM as preparation.)

Session 3: (Mini-Retreat) The Intentional Marriage Method Session 4: Barriers to Intimacy; Creative Conflict (Read chap. 3 in TIM; also chap. 1 of Bach and Wyden, The Intimate Enemy.)

Session 5: The Challenge of Changing Roles (Read chaps. 1-4 of Meet Me in the Middle. 8. )

Session 6: Sexual Intimacy (Read chap. 7 in TIM and The Joy of Sex. 9. )

Session 7: Spiritual Intimacy (Read chap 9 in TIM.)

Session 8: Our Marriage and a Better World (Read chap. 10 in TIM and chap. 8 of Meet Me in the Middle.)

Optimal sized growth groups are five or six couples. Those who sign up should agree to attend all sessions unless prevented by some major unexpected event. Close the group to additional couples after the first or second session. Trust can’t develop if the group changes constantly.

Recruiting Enrichment Groups

Ministers have quoted these statements by parishioners:

"We don’t need the marriage retreat -- there’s nothing wrong with our marriage!" "We don’t believe in washing personal linen in public!" "I’ve heard about those sensitivity groups!" To diminish these three common, resistance-fostering fears, publicity on enrichment events should make clear that their purpose is to "make good marriages better" by discovering positive strengths and increasing here-and-now communication skills. State that the group is not marriage therapy or a "sensitivity" group (which often implies embarrassing self-revealing or hostility ventilation) but an opportunity to experience and increase Christian love in marriage. The family enrichment committee, which preplans the event with the pastor, should share responsibility for recruiting through announcements in church bulletins and personal contacts.

Other Considerations

It is highly desirable -- particularly because of currently changing roles -- to have male-female co-leaders in all marriage enrichment groups and events. Charlotte and I find that working together can be satisfying and good for our marriage, and frustrating, because of our areas of disagreement. When we’re in a distancing cycle -- that is, responding in ways that push each other further apart -- we have to get reconnected ourselves before we can facilitate anyone else’s growth.

For church groups, effective marriage enrichment retreats can occur in the church fellowship halls or lounges. This keeps the costs down, which is important particularly for many younger couples. The all-important ground rule is that everyone who enrolls agrees to attend all sessions. A more remote motel, retreat center, or church camp has certain advantages -- advantages which may offset the usually higher costs. It allows people to slow down enough to collect themselves, center on the task, and take a fresh look at their marriages. Being away together for an intensive weekend of growth work and play often accelerates the process of awakening tired relationships (sexually and in other ways).

Before couples come to an enrichment event, encourage them to prepare by reading and discussing a book on growth approaches to marriage. For those who do this -- and perhaps half of them will -- this process primes the growth pump as they talk about their relationship, often more than they’ve ever done before. Other couples are inspired to read books on marriage after the event; this helps them continue their growth work.

At the close of an enrichment retreat, one man wrote on his evaluation: "Excellent experience -- for me to really talk and listen to my wife -- I can see the difference it will make in our day-to-day living. My overall evaluation -- the best time we have had together in years!" Enrichment groups and workshops for couples can be launching pads which lift their marriage into continuing growth orbits. By using their new tools and continuing in a couple support group, their relationship can continue to grow through their years together.


1. Daly, Beyond God the Father, p. 172.

2. Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (Boston: Beacon, 1955), p. 168.

3. Sidney B. Simon et al., Values Clarification (New York: Hart, 1972).

4. Clinebell and Clinebell, Crisis and Growth.

5. Clinebell and Clinebell, The Intimate Marriage, chap. 6.

6. Available from Mobius Productions, 46 Palmerston Gardens, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M6k. 1V9.

7. See H. Clinebell, People Dynamic, chaps. 1 -- 4.

8. C. Clinebell, Meet Me in the Middle.

9. Comfort, Joy of Sex.

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